For clarity, I have decided to call this post ‘artillery’ rather than anything trendy like joint fires or air land integration.
Artillery has had a mini renaissance in Afghanistan with the continuing and increasing use of GMLRS, the 70km sniper, 105mm and even the humble mortar. With likely future conflicts taking place over a wider area there is a trend for greater range.
Man Portable Mortars
Although not artillery in the traditional sense, they are in the infantry not Royal Artillery, mortars remain a wickedly effective and versatile weapon. Whether being used to suppress, nuetralise or provide smoke and illumination their greatest attributes are simplicity, speed of reaction and portability.
The venerable 51mm mortar has now been replaced with a Hirtenberger 60mm obtained under UOR and is providing a valuable improvement over the 51mm, even if it is a little heavier. This should be bought into the main equipment programme and provides an invaluable compliment to the 40mm UGL.
The L16 81mm Mortar, in service with infantry battalions since 1956, has now upgraded to the A2 model that provides a number of improvements including a new Target Locating Equipment (TLE) package. The only other improvement I would like to see is the introduction of a multi fuse for 81mm bombs like the L3 M734 or Junghans PX581 which uses optical technology to reduce costs and eliminate the threat of fuse jammers. In most mortar missions its dispersion is a positive advantage and whilst a more accurate mortar round would be useful, I would doubt the value for money. Logistics are the real problem with mortars, they demand a great deal of support, a standard pallet for example would have over 120x 81mm bombs but only 60 odd for a 120mm so despite the many calls to upgrade infantry mortars to the 120mm their lower speed of deployment and significant logistics overhead quickly diminishes any advantage they might have.
Vehicle Mounted Mortars
In a modern conflict, where counter mortar radar will be in use, simply plugging away with mortars from a fixed location will be a very dangerous pastime, vehicle mounting a mortar is used to support rapid fire and move missions.
The UK also uses the 81mm L16 in this role, fitted to Bulldog armoured personnel carriers although they can also be used in a dismounted mode.
In the vehicle mounted role, the heavier weight of 120mm bombs are arguably less of an disadvantage, a vehicle can carry the extra weight and manage the increased recoil forces. Being vehicular borne also lessens the logistics problems although of course, the underlying issues remain. Many argue that 120mm mortars are simply poor mans artillery but providing infantry or armoured infantry with a more lethal system, retained within its organic chain of command would be valuable.
If we accept the argument that 120mm in the vehicular role is worth pursuing then the choice of available weapons is the next argument.
There are a number of systems on the market, from the traditional towed systems to modern automatic loading devices and all points in between.
The CARDOM is battle proven and is in service with a number of nations but we would have to get over the objections of the yoghurt knitting class and buy from Israel. Although the SRAMS looks very interesting the CARDOM has a number of very useful innovations like the ability to quickly dismount, automated rapid fire control and can even use an interchangeable 81mm barrel. The interchangeable barrel improves versatility and eases logistics problems, which as we have said, will be greater than with an 81mm system. In the lighter brigades it could be mounted on 4×4 or 6×6 vehicles like the Ocelot or Jackal and in the medium weight brigades, a mix of FRES SV or whatever wheeled vehicle is chosen.
If we are to buy into this type of system, we should absolutely make sure they remain with the Infantry.
The 105mm L118 Light Gun has seen widespread service with the UK and many other armed forces. Its apparent simplicity belies its sophistication and superlative design, the 105mm Light Gun, like the 81mm mortar, derives its effectiveness from its rate of fire, portability and speed of operation, with the addition of accuracy. Weighing less than 2 tonnes, it can be lifted into position by many helicopters, towed by a range of light vehicles (including the new Wolfhound Tactical Support Vehicle) and in extremis, moved by hand. The famous Roshan Dragon story from the MoD shows just how versatile and portable the Light Gun can be and the effectiveness, even in rather old fashioned direct fire mode, is not in doubt.
With the relatively recent mid life upgrade the Light Gun has many effective years left in it, in service with three regiments.
The self propelled AS90 is another brilliant system, rumour has it the design spec was less than 2 sheets of paper and the contract awarded in double quick time. Despite being a bit long in the tooth it is still an effective weapon but the lack of precision/insensitive natures and shorter range than many comparable systems means it is ripe for investment. This is unlikely to happen though and it could be argued that other systems have eclipsed it.
Some of the AS90 regiments have re roled to Light Gun for Afghanistan but AS90 officially it equips 5 field regiments (1 RHA, 3 RHA, 4 RA, 19 RA, 26 RA) and in order to realise short term savings we should consider reducing this to 1 regular regiment and 1 TA, a significant reduction but these are tough times. With 1 regular and 1 TA regiment we still retain a core of this very useful system and the ability to regenerate should we need to.
In the medium term and with whats left, we might have another go at upgrading to a 52calibre barrel, introduce insensitive and guided rounds but this would not be a high priority and the cost would have to be spread across a small number of systems, making it not cost efficient. The US Excalibeer rounds have already been trialled on the AS90.
A more radical medium term solution might be to withdraw AS90 completely and replace it with one of the many 155mm wheeled or lightweight systems on the market. The cost of operating 155mm weapons on a tracked and armoured chassis is considerable, a wheeled system not only radically reduces cost but also results in greater strategic mobility by road and air (air transport by C130/A400 instead of C17 for example)
For years the Royal Artillery have been itching to get their hands on the BAe M777 155mm Ultra Lightweight Field Howitzer, as sold to the US and created the Lightweight Mobile Artillery Weapon System (LIMAWS) programme to equip the proposed medium weight FRES brigades. LIMAWS consisted of a rocket and gun based system, the gun being the M777.
LIMAWS was cancelled in 2007 but it is worth having another look at as a medium term replacement for AS90, maybe taking elements of the long term programme to replace the AS90 and Light Gun post 2020 called FIFS.
In addition to the Supacat HMT Portee system the NEXTER truck based CAmion Equipé d’un Système d’ARtillerie (CAESAR) was also trialled for the requirement but since then other systems have come onto the market including the BAe Archer, Soltam ATMOS and Denel T5. Using 52 cal barrels they all have significantly greater range than the in service AS90 (especially the Denel) and can use the various NATO standard extended range and guided munitions. Although the Archer is sophisticated it is expensive, a truck mounted systems might be more appropriate.
We might buy off the shelf or combine the M777 and a MAN SV medium mobility truck, this is should not be a complex engineering challenge
In the short term then, we should reduce our AS90 regiments significantly and in the medium term, replace them with a truck based 155mm system.
Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) was proven in the Gulf War but with the introduction of the cluster bomb treaty, its future was uncertain. The systems were subsequently upgraded to accept the guided rocket, GMLRS. These have gone on to perform sterling service in Afghanistan where they are nicknamed the 70km sniper because of their extreme range and hyper accuracy, they have even been used to drop into a large well that was being used by the enemy.
The armoured chassis weighs in at about 27 tonnes and is tracked which means strategic mobility is limited but the twin launcher means they can deliver a massive weight of very accurate fire, as the video below
The rocket version of LIMAWS was also designed to equip the medium weight brigades and was very similar in concept to the US HIMARS with a single launcher on a very lightweight Supacat HMT chassis that kept the whole system below 9 tonnes, to allow sling loading by a Chinook. Given the range of GMLRS it is difficult to see the value in making the system this lightweight, with the additions of the whole range of theatre entry specification it would be very difficult to achieve this in practice so in order to achieve some commonality with the future 155mm gun system it should be mounted on the same Support Vehicle truck chassis.
Rather than create a wheeled vehicle based system where the weapon and transport are one and the same we should create a common modular launch system, based of course on a 20ft ISO container, that can be carried on a variety of flat bed or DROPS vehicles and even naval vessels like the Think Defence C3 concept.
This container becomes hugely strategically mobile, extremely flexible and can be used for a variety of weapon systems by merely swapping the payload.
Payloads could be the existing 6 pack GMLRS, Fire Shadow, CAMM or other future systems.
Whilst I am on the subject of the Fire Shadow loitering munition, I am not convinced and would consider cancellation.
Apart from the air mobile and amphibious units, the Royal Artillery will then largely go to work in the same vehicle, regardless of system to provide obvious logistics, maintenance and training benefits.
To reduce reliance on Storm Shadow and Strike Fighters (F35 and Typhoon) for deep strike we might also consider the value of buying the Lockheed Martin ATACMS tactical rocket. This would of course stray into inter service politics but when compared to the alternatives is actually extremely cost effective. If we can break out of the inter service rivalry and stovepiped thinking that characterises much of our procurement decisions we could provide the Royal Artillery with a serious deep strike system and allow cost savings to be made elsewhere, elsewhere being the Typhoon and JCA fleets.
At just under 300km range the ATACMS missile compares favorably with the range of the Storm Shadow, can even be fitted with the same BROACH warhead as Storm Shadow and costs less than $0.75million each.
What’s not to like.
As a justification for CVF/JCA we keep hearing that the majority of the worlds population is within 100km of the shoreline. Putting an ATACMS module on a Royal Navy vessel sitting 100km offshore puts them within easy reach, of course I am not suggesting ATACMS can replace CVF/JCA but it is food for thought and worth considering as part of the force mix.
GMLRS, Storm Shadow, ATACMS and submarine launched Tomahawk are overlapping and complimentary but taken together, would be a powerful capability and if we can achieve some commonality with naval mounting of the GMLRS and ATACMS then the overall costs can also be managed.
I will cover air defence in a future post and in a previous post UAV’s have been discussed
MSTAR, MAMBA and COBRA should be retained as is, counter artillery is a very complex task that is about much more than technology
This is not a particularly revolutionary proposal but takes existing systems and applies selected enhancements whilst reducing the number of heavily armoured systems to improve strategic mobility and reduce cost.
Organisationally, we also need to resolve ongoing cap badge and service rivalry in the delivery of indirect weapons and their supporting services, ISR and UAV’s being the primary source of these disagreements that make the argument over who controls mortars look tame in comparison.
As the cost of providing close air support and deep strike from aircraft rises the lower cost of artillery starts looks increasingly attractive. A series of overlapping layers provides a cost effective means of reducing the need for expensive air delivered strike/CAS.
Note I said reduce, not replace.
- Obtain new proximity fuse for the 81mm mortar
- Bring the 60mm mortar into the main equipment programme
- Retain 81mm in man portable and vehicle mounted role
- Retain 105mm Light Gun at 3 regiments in the light role
- Disband 4 regular AS90 regiments and transfer 1 Regiments worth of systems to the TA
- Retain GMLRS at existing level
- Cancel Fire Shadow
- Introduce 120mm vehicle mounted mortar
- Withdraw AS90
- Introduce truck based 155mm system
- Consider guided 155mm ammunition
- Develop common weapon container and modules for land and naval use
- Transfer GMLRS systems to truck based carriage using common modular payload container
- Invest in ATACMS